How a Kids Program Hillary Brought to Arkansas Could Unite Democrats

If she runs in 2016, her prescient advocacy for early-childhood education might be peaking at just the right time.

Everything Hillary Clinton does is scrutinized for political meaning, and while no one knows for sure what her plans are for 2016, she’s working to advance issues she has cared about since she was a law student volunteering at the Yale Child Study Center. That was in the ’70s, and four decades later, early-childhood education is receiving the political attention it deserves, with Democrats touting universal free preschool as a centerpiece of the progressive agenda.

Clinton’s activism in this area may help her marginally with the party’s restless left wing, which has grown weary of centrists—a label that for Clinton stems more from her views on foreign policy. But there’s little daylight between her and Democratic avatars on the left when it comes to issues of children and families. “This is what she has been focused on and very effective in doing for a long time,” says Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “She isn’t coming late to this party.”

On Monday evening, Clinton will give the keynote address at the 25th anniversary of HIPPY, an acronym for Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, a program she helped bring to Arkansas when she was the state’s first lady. The way she became aware of HIPPY is very Hillaryesque. She had accompanied then-Gov. Bill Clinton to a National Governors Association meeting in Miami in 1985, and spotted a feature in the Miami Herald with the headline, “Mothers get lessons in teaching.”

Those were the days of “Buy one, get one free,” the slogan touted by the Clintons as they worked together to push major reforms for a school system considered one of the worst in the nation. They were looking for a preschool program, and reading the newspaper article, Hillary said years later, “There was something about that description which captured me from the very moment I saw it because what it said was that this was a program aimed at a parent, primarily a mother.”

She cut out the article, called the program’s originator, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Avima Lombard, invited Lombard to Arkansas, and six months later HIPPY was up and running in Arkansas. It has survived and thrived through ensuing Republican governors because it’s not big government going in and telling people how to raise their kids. Program trainers are “para-professional paid peers of the parents,” says Linda Frank, chairwoman of the HIPPY USA board of trustees. Using a scripted curriculum, they show parents like themselves how to get kids ready for school in math and reading.

HIPPY now serves 15,000 families in 21 states, and Frank cites “evidence from various sites around the country that HIPPY children come to school better prepared and stay ahead.” The program began in Israel in 1969 to deal with an influx of refugees from economically and educationally stressed backgrounds. When Clinton was in the White House as first lady, she and Sarah Netanyahu, wife of Israel's prime minister, toured a HIPPY center in Jerusalem. Her instincts vindicated by a growing body of research, Clinton said, “Now we have actual scientific evidence that these kinds of activities with very young children are not only a nice thing to do, but they literally build brain cells —that by reading to babies, infants, toddlers, young children, you are helping create more connections in the brain.”

Building on all that we now know about early education and brain development, the Clinton Foundation last year launched Too Small to Fail, a joint project with Next Generation, a nonprofit that focuses on climate change and what its website calls “the threat of diminishing opportunities for children and families.” Ann O’Leary with Next Generation worked with Clinton in the White House and in the Senate, and is overseeing the joint initiative. “When you say you’re partnering with Secretary Clinton, people think she’s just lending her name. It’s much, much deeper than that. She helped conceive of the project,” says O’Leary.

With the resources of the Clinton Foundation and the convening power of her name as a potential president, Clinton is getting backing from major players to get out the message of more parental engagement. The new initiative is like HIPPY 2.0. The Clinton Foundation chose Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the first Too Small to Fail project because it was an early adopter of HIPPY. “The secretary asked the owner of QuikTrip what they could do,” says O’Leary. With almost every Tulsan visiting a convenience store in the course of a month, getting a commitment to put up signs and posters is the kind of local community engagement that is key to succeeding.

In New York, Clinton appeared with the president of Univision in East Harlem in February to promote Too Small to Fail; on a recent trip to California, when she approached hospital executives, the head of Kaiser Permanente said 100,000 babies were born in KP hospitals last year, “and he said there’s much more we could be doing,” says O’Leary. These are valuable political connections, but Clinton would be doing this networking even if there were no possibility of future elective office.

In the video The Man From Hope that did so much to sell Bill Clinton to the country when it was shown at the 1992 Democratic Convention, footage of Hillary working with HIPPY was left on the cutting-room floor. The program has grown so much since then, that at the next Democratic Convention, they might want to get new footage.